Canberra: An evolving city

Posted September 26, 2019

  • Local government
  • State government
SGS Economics and Planning Canberra an evolving city

Last year was a busy time for planning in the ACT. This period saw the release of a range of new strategies to guide Canberra's development. Heralding a further wave of urban renewal, together with the completion of the first stage of the light rail network. This is expected to see the dawning of a new era for the evolving city and communities of Canberra.

New Planning, Transport, and Housing Strategies

Released in late 2018, the ACT Planning Strategy sets out a vision for the ACT. Falling under five related themes; Compact and Efficient, Diverse, Sustainable and Resilient, Liveable, and Accessible.

Key aspects of the strategy include highlighting urban intensification localities around centres and transport infrastructure. Plus, a 70 per cent target for urban infill development along with future development investigation areas in western ACT, and potential high-speed rail corridor connections.

Other strategies released include the Housing Strategy and the draft Integrated Transport Strategy – Moving Canberra. The Housing Strategy outlines commitments for new investment in public housing stock. It also features support for community housing, reforms to tenancy laws to strengthen renter rights, and funding for innovation in the housing sector. Significantly, there is also a commitment to dedicate 15 per cent of government land release sites to social and affordable housing.

The draft Transport Strategy focuses on a 'Movement and Place' framework. This scheme is intended to balance the dual function of roads in the ACT, as both corridors for travel as well as places and destinations in their own right. It also enhances transport choice by supporting the use of different transport modes in a car-dominated city.

The last 12 months also saw the finalisation of the City and Gateway Urban Renewal Framework. This joint framework between the ACT Government and the National Capital Authority (NCA) was enacted through the adoption of key recommendations, as amendments to the National Capital Plan and Territory Plan.

The framework is intended to guide development along the Federal Highway and Northbourne Avenue on approach to the city centre, supporting a transition from rural landscape through to the urbanised core, with key nodes along the way, In addition the City Renewal Authority with SGS assistance recently released its Precinct Renewal Program. The Progam features strategies and actions which focus on different precincts within Civic, the Northbourne Avenue corridor, and key nodes such as Dickson and Braddon.

Sustained growth and change in the city and suburbs

Growth has occurred across Canberra with dwelling development approvals in the past year concentrated around the town centres of Belconnen and Woden and in new release suburbs such as Denman Prospect. Suburbs along the light rail corridor in Canberra's inner north and Gungahlin show continued growth in dwellings and population with several significant apartment developments either completed or in their final stages. The spotlight is gradually shifting to Woden in the south as the next destination for light rail, with a concentration of several large residential projects in the town centre. This shift has coincided with a renewed focus on the need to rejuvenate the town centre. These updates include the experimental transformation of the Town Square to encourage higher utilisation of the space and more ground-level activation.

The pace of growth and change observed across Canberra has stimulated concerns about the impact on social infrastructure. These worries have prompted the voices of Community Councils and residents' associations to come to the fore. The role and influence of these organisations in planning outcomes have not been without controversy, as seen in the recent case of the proposed Curtin shops redevelopment.

Housing affordability remains a critical issue

While development booms, another acute and pressing issue arises; housing affordability. Despite recent price downturns in other cities, house prices in Canberra continue to grow with the median property sale price increasing by 15.1 per cent in the year to April 2019 to $574,950. Canberra's rental vacancy rate remains at less than 1.5 per cent since the start of 2017, contributing to rising rents across the city. Canberra stands as one of the most expensive capital cities in which to rent with a median weekly rental of $550 in April 2019.

For lower-income ACT households, housing affordability is a particular challenge. Their plight can be concealed by Canberra's overall higher than average median incomes. This is reflected in the most recent release of SGS’ Rental Affordability Index (RAI), which reveals that household rents in Canberra range from Unaffordable to Extremely Unaffordable for those on lower incomes, including those reliant on government benefits. This revelation highlights the need for policy mechanisms that allow economic benefits through increased housing development to filter down to those most in need.

Transformation of Canberra’s Public Transport Network

Perhaps the most recent significant change to Canberra’s urban structure was the opening of Stage 1 of the light rail network. Though delivered later than anticipated, the project officially came in under its contracted budget. Less than the cost initially estimated in the business case – a rare feat for large infrastructure projects.

Stage 1 is responsible for the restructuring of the city's entire bus network. The revised network and timetabling saw a focus on creating more direct routes, increasing services for evenings and weekends, and introducing several rapid services connecting town centres with other key locations. However, not everyone is pleased with the changes to the network. Some travellers now need to make more interchanges than previously, due to changes in services, this has included the removal of dedicated services to some schools and regular cancellations of weekend services.

Free travel across the public transport network for the first month of operation saw a record number of passenger journeys with more than 65,000 journeys during the first two days of service. Overall, the free period saw up to 17,000 boardings in one day on light rail, though this number had dropped to less than 15,000 boardings per day with the reintroduction of fares. However, the network overall has seen a nine per cent increase in passenger journeys compared with the same time period the previous year. The long- term impact of the introduction of light rail and the new bus network on Canberrans' transport habits will be interesting to observe in the future.

What’s next?

Canberra has the potential to be further transformed by the promised extension of light rail from Civic to Woden. Though the ACT Government has committed to the Stage 2 project over two phases, it’s likely to face some hurdles in the short term. These challenges include Commonwealth planning approval processes with the proposed route travelling through areas of national significance. Add to this the need to resolve technical constraints such as passenger access to stops along Adelaide Avenue and the design of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge. Additional funding for which, may be less than forthcoming to the ACT Government following the result of the federal election.

Another important recent development is the creation of a new agency, Major Projects Canberra, to oversee the ACT's 10-year infrastructure program. The agency is likely to have responsibility for significant infrastructure projects. These projects include Light Rail Stage 2 and the SPIRE (Surgical Procedures, Interventional Radiology, and Emergency) expansion of Canberra Hospital.

Urban renewal across Canberra looks sure to continue into the near future, with many important precincts proposed for mixed-use development, including the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) campus and the University of Canberra. Investigations have also commenced into future land uses at East Gungahlin, centred on the suburb of Kenny and including the Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC) precinct.

A number of key sites are earmarked for development through the Indicative Land Release Program. These include sites along Northbourne Avenue such as the Macarthur House site in Lyneham and former public housing sites in Braddon and Turner. Adjacent to the Jerrabomberra Wetlands, the East Lake area in Kingston is also proposed for renewal. As is the West Basin (Acton Foreshore) precinct between Civic and Lake Burley Griffin. Plans for the redevelopment of the Kingston Arts Precinct were also recently released. Furthermore, the supply of greenfield development is set to continue with newly established suburbs in north Gungahlin and the Molonglo district.

Continued growth needs proper planning

SGS Economics Planning Amanda Sturgeon

Robust, evidence-based planning will remain critical in informing infrastructure investment and land use planning decisions. To ensure that Canberra can accommodate its expected future growth, it must do so without compromising the liveability, character, and environmental values that make it unique.

— Senior Consultant Amanda Sturgeon

Canberra’s overall liveability and economic opportunities are likely to support the continued program of urban renewal. This renewal will require investment in infrastructure to support its growth.

Cities throughout Australia are currently grappling with the challenge of retrofitting the urban environment. In order to cope with rapidly increasing numbers of residents, it’s essential to provide adequate transport networks, community facilities such as schools, and other infrastructure. The ACT will need to rise to the challenge as the population heads towards 500,000.


1. ACT Government, 2019, 'City Precinct Renewal Program,'
2. ACT Government, 2019, 'Woden Experiment,'
3. ACT Treasury, 2019, 'ACT Residential Property Market, April 2019,
4. Owen, 2019, 'Domain rental vacancy rate April 2019: Vacant listings surge across the capitals,' Domain, 2 May 2019,
5. McLachlan, 2019, 'Most affordable (and expensive) capital cities for rent in Australia,' 17 April 2019, Canstar,
6. ACT Government, 2019, 'Light rail comes in significantly under budget,' media release, 13 May 2019,

7. Hayne and Scott, 2019, 'Canberra's new bus and light rail system increased passenger numbers – or did it?' ABC News,
8. Brown, 2019, 'Canberra light rail passenger numbers down in first week,' The Canberra Times, 11 June 2019,
9. Brady, 2019, 'Major Projects Canberra aims to deliver ACT government's infrastructure wish list.' The Canberra Times, 17 June 2019,

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